Think Sugar Causes Hyperactivity in Children? It’s Probably THIS Instead

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on August 27, 2010

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The kiddie party is about to end while a group of parents sit around and watch their children spiral out of control. They’re jumping around, the tantrums are escalating and no child seems to be listening.

“Sugar always makes my kids hyperactive,” one mom says. “This is why we never give my son sugar before bed,” another chimes in.

But parents don’t always realize that it’s not sugar that causes hyperactivity in kids but something else lurking in the food their kids eat. Yes, it could also be that they are just overtired and over-stimulated but there could be more to the story.

The safety and behavior effects of certain food additives have been questioned in recent years. Let’s investigate what this means for the health and well being of your family.

Sugar myth dies hard
Science hasn’t shown a connection between sugar intake and hyperactivity, yet this myth continues to live on in many households. This doesn’t mean that excess sugar is beneficial, it just hasn’t been found to be related to behavioral issues in kids.

Take a research study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1994. Thirty-five 5 to 7 year olds labeled by their mothers as “sugar-sensitive” were separated into two groups. While both sets of children were given the exact same sugar-free drink, one group was told their kids got a large dose of sugar and the other was told the truth.

The mothers who were told their children were given sugar rated their children as significantly more hyperactive. This study highlights how just having the expectation that sugar causes adverse behavior makes it seem like a reality.

While sugar is not implicated in hyperactivity, there are other ingredients in sugar-containing foods that could be the culprit.

The world of artificial colors
One reason sugar has been implicated in behavior issues with kids may be that sugar-containing foods including juice drinks, candy, colored breakfast cereals, certain snacks and baked goods often contain artificial food colors or dyes.

According to a 2008 study published in Nutrition Reviews, research points to a relationship between hyperactivity and artificial food colorings in a small subset of hyperactive children. These children are considered intolerant to such additives.

But two recent UK studies found increased signs of hyperactivity in otherwise healthy children ingesting artificial colors and the preservative benzoate. The results of these studies led the British government to recommend removing food dyes in the food and restaurant industries. The European Parliament passed a law that foods that contain such ingredients carry the following warning label: “may have adverse affect on activity and attention in children.”

The Plot Thickens
On June 29th of this year, the Consumer for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a letter urging the FDA to ban all food dyes. They lay out their argument for such a ban in a report titled “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.”

In the report, CSPI discusses the research linking food dyes to hyperactivity but also discusses other health issues and safety concerns:

• Safety studies on food dyes examine single dyes instead of a mixture of colors which is how they are typically consumed.
• Some food dyes may contain very small levels of carcinogenic compounds. The FDA has established legal and safe limits for such contaminants but this was based on 1990 dye usage which has increased 50 percent since then.
• FDA does not take into account the effects dyes have on children who consume more dyes per body weight than adults.

The FDA definition of safe color additives is “…there is convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive. ” CSPI disagrees with this statement and believes that because dyes offer little in the way of nutrition (for cosmetic purposes only) they should be banned.

The food industry responded to this report stating that food dyes have been extensively studied and are safe for consumption. But it’s the FDA that makes the rules and there is no word yet on whether there will be changes coming.

What’s a parent to do?
I don’t believe that food dyes are unsafe but I do not want them in the daily diet of my family. I hope that FDA revisits food dyes and their long term safety for both kids and adults. But until something changes, here are tips on reducing food dyes in your family’s diet:

• Check ingredient lines for artificial colors. Red 40 and Yellow 5 & 6 account for 90 percent of all dyes in food products.
• Choose foods that use real food components to add color to foods such as beet juice, tumeric and beta-carotene.
• If your child has behavior or attention issues, eliminate all artificial colors. For other children keep the intake of food dyes as occasional (birthday parties, Halloween etc.).
• If you believe your child is sensitive to food dyes file a report. 
• To learn more about additives in food see CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine.

So tell me, do you watch out for food dyes in the food you buy?

References
Hoover DW, et al. “Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions.” Journal of Abnormal Childhood Psychology. 1994: 22(4): 501–15.

Sinn N. Nutritional and dietary influences on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition Reviews. 2008; 66(10):558-568.

McCann D, et al. “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007; 370(9598): 1560–67.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Merri Ann August 27, 2010 at 8:03 am

I absolutely watch out for this … I’ve always thought it was a problem to artificially color things … even cheese is made to be orange. It’s the whole concept that things need to be made shiny (apples) and colorful for us ignorant consumers to purchase them.

The hardest part is explaining to the kids why we buy the plain yogurt and add our own ingredients vs. the Dora yogurt … or we buy the none colored cheese vs. the bright orange.

My kids love to help with the grocery shopping and I feel really bad that they don’t get to purchase the “fun” things very often because of all the added garbage.

Sheryl Lozicki August 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

Thank you for addressing this. As a Registered Dietitian I too regularly try to explain that science and research do not support that sugar causes hyperactivity. Kids parties and halloween are candy fueled events that parents tie back to hyperactivity, but it’s the lack of structure, and general fun at the events that hypes up the kids. Sometimes a child’s behavior is off because sugary snacks have been substitued for real meals and the child is still hungry. Thanks for all of the resources on food dyes! Good info.

Shelley August 27, 2010 at 10:26 am

Hi,

I still am sticking to sugar being the big culprit. I will tell you why. I am a mother who does not allow sugar in my children’s diet. When we adopted our son Sergei from Russia, his teacher gave him 4 or 5 sugar cubes as a reward while we were filling out paper work. Within a short time we saw his energy take off! After coming home from Russia we never witnessed this again until we caught Sergei taking sugar cubes off the coffee station after church. Again we witnessed the energy surge. This is not our only child that we have seen this behavior in. I am the mother of 8 children.
Myth? I think not!

Shelley

Lucie August 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm

We try to eat food that is as little processed as possible in our family. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult. The example that instantly comes to my mind is pickles. Until a couple years ago, several brands of dill pickles in grocery stores here (Quebec, Canada) had turmeric listed in the ingredients and no yellow coloring. Unfortunately, the turmeric-colored pickles were often from India, while those canned “locally” (I’m still talking about big brands) had artificial color, so this was still a dilemma for us as eating local is more environmentally friendly. The last few times I wanted to buy pickles, even the cheap brands made in India had artificial coloring. Now, unless I find time to can a batch myself, I have to go out of my way to buy pickles at farmer’s markets or very small, hard-to-find, expensive local brands who use no dye in them.

It may sound silly as it’s just pickles, but that’s a general trend I’ve observed for other food as well.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Shelley,

Thanks for the comment. I’m not saying that sugar does not cause an energy surge, especially when given alone without other food. Research shows that sugar is not linked to behavior problems like ADHD or hyperactivity. If someone eats sugar with a meal that includes fat and protein, the sugar will be more slowly absorbed and have less of an effect. But if someone eats sugar by itself, like in a sugar cube, it can cause a temporary increase in energy because it is absorbed and digested very quickly.

Hopefully that makes sense!

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 27, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Thanks Sheryl!

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 27, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Lucie, I totally hear what you are saying. It’s not always easy getting the food that you want without running to different stores and the Farmers’ market. I struggle with that a lot too. I plan to address these complexities and hopefully help simplify things.

Shelley August 27, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Awe… I toldly see what you are saying now. Thank you for taking your time to answer my comment.

AKeo August 27, 2010 at 5:45 pm

I was recently made aware of the research on food dyes. I have not been looking out for it. Honestly, I never really looked out for much in my foods until my sister had cancer and then when I became pregnant. Those situations really make you think about what you put in your body and those of your family as well. I usually equate colored kid things with sugar, and I stay away from lots of sugar as much as I can for my son. But lately I’ve been reading the dye content on things I have in my house. I will certainly look before buying. However it is getting very discouraging to feed my family within my normal budget – almost all foods have bad things in them or on them!

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Akeo– I know it can seem like that but you can’t go wrong with the basics — fruits, veggies, whole grains, low fat dairy and lean meats.

TwinToddlersDad August 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm

I am glad you clarified the difference between a sudden boost in energy after eating sugary foods and ADHD/hyperactivity. There is a clinical difference between a child with ADHD and hyperactivity vs. a child who is simply active and energetic. Healthy children are supposed to be energetic, but when their energy level begins to interfere with their ability to focus and achieve age-appropriate milestones, then we have a problem.

I have come across research which implicates artificial dyes in ADHD and hyperactivity. The data does not seem conclusive, which is hardly a surprise because it is very hard to associate such conditions with a few ingredients in food. Still, your advice about minimizing processed foods is right on the mark, not just because of these dyes, but also because they are usually full of salt, sugar and fat.

I wonder why dyes are used in foods, especially kids food products, in the first place. They probably add nothing to the taste. Do kids ask for these products because of the colors, or because of something else? And I can’t believe they are cheap either.

Thank you for the informative and thought provoking article!

Sheryl Lozicki August 29, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Twin Toddler dad’s comment reminded me how I got pulled into a product with food dyes. My son’s favorite show used to be Blues Clues. He was Blues Clues for Halloween, I potty trained by letting him talk to Steve and Blue on the phone. When the “blue” Blues Clues applesauce hit the market, I had to buy it for him. Needless to say, when his stool turned blue – literally, I threw the rest away. Too much information maybe, but true story!

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 30, 2010 at 7:23 am

That’s too funny Sheryl. Blue poo would scare me too!

Tiffany Miller March 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm

My 7 year old son has been having trouble in school focusing. I met with his teacher recently and together we have been trying to find out how to resolve this problem. The teacher said that she couldn’t come out and say it, but from conversation I gathered that she believes my son is ADD or HDAD. I’m terrified of this! I don’t want my child to have to be on Meds and be like a zombie. I find all the information on this page very interesting and wonder if I observe the foods I buy more closely for the dyes and ect. if this will help my son, rather than having to be put on Meds? Right now I will try anything! Is there a menu I can print or download to help place him on a better diet? PLEASE HELP!! Thanks!

Nurit November 7, 2011 at 1:13 am

I have no idea if sugar indiced hyperactivity is a myth or not but all that parents are more likely to think their children are hyperactive if they are given sugar.

Trenton November 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

THIS Article is Totally Irresponsible

I am personally appalled that the “study” referenced in this article is being presented as evidence to support a claim that the study itself has nothing to do with. The variable in the study doesn’t analyze sugar’s effects on hyperactivity, it analyzes parent’s perception of it, and to suggest anything otherwise is scientifically irresponsible. Come with a better example or argument then that.

Furthermore, the entire nature of this article is totally irresponsible. With childhood obesity and diabetes running RAMPANT in today’s society, which is a direct result of people being grossly misinformed about good nutrition for their kids, telling parents that sugar is “ok” is NOT ok. Not at ALL! Child endocrinologist Robert Lustig gives a 90 minute lecture, (available for free via youtube,) addressing the chronically toxic nature of sugar, and how it’s bad business for not just kids, but anyone.

I don’t know enough to speak to the danger or not of artificial “dyes” or what not, but I’m pretty sure POISON is NOT what you want to give to your kids, and fructose is toxic to human beings. It is metabolized the exact same way as alcohol, increases uric acid, boosts triglycerides, not to mention causes a bunch of insulin to shoot around the body, which unless your kid is a professional athlete will probably make them fat too.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm

The point of this article is to address articificial colors on behavior on children. That same study your criticize me for sharing was discussed by Harvard researchers in their newsletter http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/Jury-still-out-on-foods-additives-and-ADHD The point is to show parents that biases can get in the way of relating food intake to a child’s behavior. In this article I state that “This doesn’t mean that excess sugar is beneficial, it just hasn’t been found to be related to behavior issues in kids” so I don’t understand why you conclude that I am encouraging sugar intake in kids.

I wrote a series on Managing Sweets to help parents better manage sweet foods in kids’ diet. http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/category/managing-sweets-series/ The research does not support complete avoidance of sugar or sweet foods — and the leading experts I have interviewed agree. I can share these studies with you if you like, but restrictive feeding practices are associated with increased weight in children just as more permissive ones are. On this site I help parents develop a more authoritative feeding style — one that not too strict or lax –as the research shows this is most beneficial in terms of weight, healthy diets and hunger and fullness management in children.

I discuss the potential problem of too much fructose/sucrose in the diet in this article http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2011/01/managing-sweets-part-5-the-myth-that-keeps-you-eating-too-much-sugar/ But instead of targetting sugar as “bad” I address how much is too much.

I aim to provide quality articles on this site with supporting research and expert interviews.

Trenton November 23, 2011 at 5:50 pm

In my observation, despite the fact you don’t directly say that the sugar isn’t problematic, by citing the study under the heading “Sugar myth dies hard,” contextually it suggests that the study supports the idea that sugar does not cause hyperactivity.

on another note. If you really want to investigate what causes ADHD or hyperactivity, you should do some research into the effects of too little fats in the diet. The human brain is practically a big ball of fat, and the production of brain cells is dependent on fat intake, yet USDA and health “experts” still keep suggesting low-fat this and low-fat that religiously.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 23, 2011 at 6:03 pm

If you look further on my website you see I already go into great deal about diet and ADHD — and the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and other key nutrients
http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2009/09/can-diet-prevent-adhd-in-children/
In my Nutrition Series I talk about the important about fat in the diet of children
http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2011/07/kids-nutrition-part-3-dietary-fat-for-children-are-we-missing-the-mark/
At the time I wrote this article, there was no link between sugar and hyperactivity. Some newer studies are questioning that and are caling for more research. Will continue to evolve my writing to reflect the latest science.

Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm

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